Sunday, March 30, 2008

New forms of collective behavior?

Personal electronic communication and the Internet -- have these new technologies changed the game for collective action? Here I am thinking of email and instant messaging, but also cell phones and other personal communications devices, as well as the powerful capacity for dissemination of ideas over the web -- has this dense new network of communication and coordination fundamentally changed the ability of groups to pursue their political or social goals?

There is no doubt that these technologies are relevant to collective action. Communication, coordination, and assurance are crucial features of successful collective action -- and these are precisely the qualities that current technologies offer. Moreover, the ability for a party or movement to disseminate its programs, ideas, and promises to potential followers is crucial for its ability to gather support; and this is what the Web offers better than any prior form of communications technology.

A couple of data points are relevant.
  • The City of New York has recently subpoenaed the software and records of TXTmob from an MIT graduate student (story). TXTmob is a software tool created more or less on the fly before the party conventions in 2004 to permit demonstrators to use text messages to assemble and disperse quickly and effectively.
  •'s music video of Barak Obama's "Yes We Can" speeches has been viewed by eight million people since posting on YouTube -- generating funds, votes, and passion for the candidate.
  • Cell phone photos and videos have made their way out of Tibet and Burma documenting the crackdowns that have occurred in those places -- allowing passionate groups of people outside the area to bring their protests to bear.

So what is genuinely new in this list? Covert cameras and travelers have existed for a long time. Cell phones were available in Gdansk and Teheran during street protests there in the 1970s. And newspapers, magazines, and television and radio have disseminated ideas widely. So, again, is there any reason to think that current communications technologies have changed anything fundamental -- either the nature of popular mobilization or the balance of power between the powerful and the numerous?

Two factors are important enough to significantly change the nature of struggles between the powerful and the popular. First is the capacity for coordination among a large group that is created by cell phones and IM devices. A "flash mob" can form and dissolve in minutes. This can make their actions and demonstrations more effective and more difficult to repress. And there is a secondary benefit for the organization -- rapid multi-sided communication can help to maintain solidarity and commitment within the group.

Second, the low cost and broad distribution of web-based communication gives a new advantage to the numerous but poor. Swift Boaters required hundreds of thousands of dollars to disseminate their attack ads against candidate Kerry -- whereas a six-minute video can reach millions of people on YouTube for free. This tips the balance of power away from the deep pockets towards the creative activist group.

So it seems reasonable to judge that these communications technologies are indeed a significant new element in the field of play of collective action. Groups can self-organize more effectively; they can coordinate their actions; and they can share and reinforce the urgency of their commitments through the use of cell phones, text messages, web pages, and dissemination points such as YouTube.

All this has implications for popular politics within a law-governed democracy. It is less clear that these technologies offer as much leverage for the powerless within an authoritarian state. Combine a powerful authoritarian state's ability to monitor communications with a perfect readiness to repress activists and dissidents and to control the technology -- and you get a situation in which these tools of communication are much less useful for an opposition.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Explaining technology failure

Technology failure is often spectacular and devastating -- witness Bhopal, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, the Challenger disaster, and the DC10 failures of the 1970s. But in addition to being a particularly important cause of human suffering, technology failures are often very complicated social outcomes that involve a number of different kinds of factors. And this makes them interesting topics for social science study.

It is fairly common to attribute spectacular failures to a small number of causes -- for example, faulty design, operator error, or a conjunction of unfortunate but singly non-fatal accidents. What sociologists who have studied technology failures have been able to add is the fact that the root causes of disastrous failures can often be traced back to deficiencies of the social organizations in which they are designed, used, or controlled (Charles Perrow, Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies). Technology failures are commonly the result of specific social organizational defects; so technology failure is often or usually a social outcome, not simply a technical or mechanical misadventure. (Dietrich Dorner's The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations is a fascinating treatment of a number of cases of failure; Eliot Cohen's Military Misfortunes: The Anatomy of Failure in War provides an equally interesting treatment of military failures; for example, the American failure to suppress submarine attacks on merchant shipping off the US coast in the early part of World War II.)

First, a few examples. The Challenger space shuttle was destroyed as a result of O-rings in the rocket booster units that became brittle because of the low launch temperature -- evidently an example of faulty design. But various observers have asked the more fundamental question: what features of the science-engineering-launch command process that was in place within NASA and between NASA and its aerospace suppliers led it to break down so profoundly (Diane Vaughan, The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA)? What organizational defects made it possible for this extended group of talented scientists and engineers to come to the decision to launch over the specific warnings that were brought forward by the rocket provider's team about the danger of a cold-temperature launch? Edward Tufte attributes the failure to poor scientific communication (Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative); Morton Thiokol engineer Roger Boisjoly attributes it to an excessively hierarchical and deferential relation between the engineers and the launch decision-makers. Either way, features of the NASA decision-making process -- social-organizational features -- played a critical role.

Bhopal represents another important case. Catastrophic failure of a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India in 1984 led to a release of a highly toxic gas. The toxic cloud passed into the densely populated city of Bhopal. Half a million people were affected, and between 16 and 30 thousand people died as a result. A chemical plant is a complex physical system. But even more, it is operated and maintained by a complex social organization, involving training, supervision, and operational assessment and oversight. In his careful case study of Bhopal, Paul Shrivastava maintains that this disaster was caused by a set of persistent and recurring organizational failures, especially in the areas of training and supervision of operators (Bhopal: Anatomy of Crisis).

Close studies of the nuclear disasters at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island have been equally fruitful in terms of shedding light on the characteristics of social, political, and business organization that have played a role in causing these great disasters. The stories are different in the two cases; but in each case, it turns out that social factors, including both organizational features internal to the nuclear plants and political features in the surrounding environment, played a role in the occurrence and eventual degree of destruction associated with the disasters.

These cases illustrate several important points. First, technology failures and disasters almost always involve a crucial social dimension -- in the form of the organizations and systems through which the technology is developed, deployed, and maintained and the larger social environment within which the technology is situated. Technology systems are social systems. Second, technology failures therefore constitute an important subject matter for sociological and organizational research. Sociologists can shed light on the ways in which a complex technology might fail. And third, and most importantly, the design of safe systems -- particularly systems that have the potential for creating great harms -- needs to be an interdisciplinary effort. The perspectives of sociologists and organizational theorists need to be incorporated as deeply as those of industrial and systems engineers into the design of systems that will preserve a high degree of safety. This is an important realization for the high profile risky industries -- aviation, chemicals, nuclear power. But it is also fundamental for other important social institutions, including especially hospitals and health systems. Safe technologies will only exist when they are embedded in safe, fault-tolerant organizations and institutions. And all of this means, in turn, that there is an urgent need for a sociology of safety.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Processes versus structures

Comparative historical sociology seeks to provide an answer to this type of question: what causes certain kinds of large historical outcomes? And it proceeds, often, on the basis of controlled comparison of a small number of cases. Theda Skocpol's classic book, States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China, is a good example of the approach. So far so good. But what kinds of causes do CHS researchers typically look for? The method of comparison is often described in terms of Mill's methods of similarity and difference. Find cases with variation in the outcome to be explained and similar/different causal conditions; and then seek out patterns of co-variation that suggest that certain factors are necessary and/or sufficient conditions for the outcome to be explained. These factors are then said to cause the outcome. (Mill's approach to social research is described in Fred Wilson's entry on Mill in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

This way of formulating the approach has fairly strong ontological presuppositions. Basically, it assumes that social causes are large, pervasive factors that obtain or fail to obtain in the multiple cases. For example, in explaining revolution the investigator might identify food crisis, population density, weak state institutions, and war as potential causal factors, and then compare the cases with respect to the variance of these factors. The comparative method assumes that large social units (societies, regions, social groups) are the operative units, and their causal properties are largescale, pervasive social conditions.

But what if our view of social causation is focused at a more disaggregated level -- not at the level of gross social conditions and structures, but at the level of lower-level processes and mechanisms? What if we thought that the action is really taking place at the level of the contingent unfolding of social processes at more local levels? This ontology wouldn't imply that the large social factors just mentioned are not part of the true causal story. But it would cast serious doubt on the expectation that there will be neat patterns of covariance across cases identified solely at this level. And yet this is exactly what Mill's methods require.

The turn to concrete social mechanisms as the unit of social analysis suggests that it is most fruitful to seek out explanations of outcomes as the "concatenation" of a set of common social mechanisms (Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory). And this implies that the traditional comparative method is not likely to succeed; there won't be a neat pattern of co-variation at the level of macro-characteristics and structures. So what is the alternative?

We might say that a credible alternative, still falling within a broad definition of "comparative historical sociology", is this: select a number of cases for detailed study. Uncover in some detail the processes and factors that appear to have led to the outcome (process-tracing). And arrive at generalizations by discovering that certain mechanisms or processes recur across multiple cases, and that large structural factors interact with these processes in recurring ways.

This is the approach that McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly take in Dynamics of Contention. And it would appear to me that this approach permits an appropriate marriage between social ontology and social science methodology. The methodology is suited to the ontological insight that social phenomena are composed of lower-level social mechanisms and processes, and the outcomes are the contingent and path-dependent result of the concatenation of these mechanisms. There are no "laws of revolution" (or war, or civil strife); rather, there are a large number of social mechanisms that can be observed in many instances of these large social outcomes. These mechanisms can be rigorously analyzed, and we can explain outcomes (for example, the success of the Bolshevik revolutionary strategy) as the result of a concatenation of various of these mechanisms.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Structures in Marx's thought

The concept of a social structure has often played a large role in social theorizing. The general idea is that society consists of an ensemble of durable, regulative structures within the context of which individuals live and act. Sometimes structures are interpreted functionally: the ensemble of structures constitute a system, and discrete structures satisfy important social functions. This is a physiological approach to society: what are the chief sub-systems in society and what do they do; how do they fit together to assure the continuing functioning of society?

There is much to fault in this set of ideas about the constituent parts of society -- for example, its tendency to reify a continually shifting social reality and its tacit assumption that the social order is a system in functional equilibrium.

But here I want to ask a smaller question: does Marx offer a social ontology that includes enduring social structures?

It would appear that the answer is a resounding "yes". Marx looks at capitalism as a system. For example, consider this statement from the Preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or — what is but a legal expression for the same thing — with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production.

Here and elsewhere Marx picks out the forces of production and relations of production as the fundamental determinants of historical change. He identifies social classes as the chief actors in society. And he offers a conception of the capitalist mode of production as consisting of an economic base -- the economic structure -- and an ensemble of superstructural elements -- law, state, ideology, religion, culture --that stand above the economic structure and serve to preserve its conditions of reproduction. All of this invokes an ontology of social structures, social systems, and functional interdependency (G. A. Cohen, Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence).

The functionalism implicit in this ontology has been deeply challenged (Jon Elster, Making Sense of Marx; Daniel Little, The Scientific Marx). The bottom line of these criticisms seems inescapable: there is no basis whatsoever to expect that social structures will develop that are functionally suited to the needs of the social system. There is no process of natural selection for social arrangements. So if there is alignment across structures, we need to seek out the specific social mechanisms that bring it about.

But what about the structuralism? Is this ontology a credible one if it is separated from the functionalist assumption?

Here we need to be very careful at every step of the argument. Marx is right that Britain and France possessed a set of property relations in capital and labor in the mid-nineteenth century. These relations were distinct from those of French feudalism in the fourteenth century. These social relations are durable and coercive. Those differences created different historical dynamics in nineteenth-century Britain and France. So far so good -- there were durable, coercive social relations embodied on the two societies, and it doesn't seem misleading to call these "structures." Moreover, these structures had historical effects, much as Marx described them to have. Likewise, his definitions of "proletariat" and "capitalist" are rigorous and historically grounded. So Marx succeeds in identifying social structures in particular societies.

But here it is very important to avoid the error of reification: the assumption that the structures of capitalism are substantially the same in every capitalist society, or the same in one capitalist society over time. Rather, there are substantial and causally important differences across the basic economic institutions, and the situations of the great classes, in different capitalist societies. This is one of the central insights of the new institutionalism (Kathleen Thelen, How Institutions Evolve: The Political Economy of Skills in Germany, Britain, the United States, and Japan). These differences over time and across societies in turn imply that the structuralism of the concept of the capitalist mode of production must be abandoned as well. There is no super-category of "capitalism" and its logic that can be used to subsume the historical trajectories of multiple societies.

Finally, it bears repeating that all theories of structures require microfoundations. Structures do not exist free-standing; instead, they must be embodied on the actions and thoughts of socially constituted individuals. (See Levels of the Social for more on this.) I don't think Marx would object to this stricture -- I think he actually provides an agent-centered political economy himself. But the more holistic advocates of French structuralism (Althusser or Poulantzas, for example) would object strenuously.

So this leaves us with a pretty tame version of a Marxian structuralism. Social structures exist. They vary from society and across time. They are not functionally adapted. There are no transcendent structures possessing a unique historical dynamic. And, finally, all these claims about causally active social structures need to be compatible with microfoundations at the level of the social actors.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Social change and natural selection?

Are there any valid analogies between the evolution of species and various kinds of social change?

Here's the basic argument for the evolution of species in Darwinian theory: individual organisms transmit traits to offspring; there is a low but positive rate of mutation of traits; there is no inheritance of acquired characteristics; traits influence the overall reproductive success of the organism (phenotype); organisms with a higher level of reproductive fitness proliferate their traits more frequently; and, in time, the novel trait prevails within the population. Over long periods of time, the species becomes more adapted to the particular features of its environment through the accumulation of fitness-enhancing traits. An important conceptual issue that needed resolution in the development of modern evolutionary theory is the unit of selection: is it the individual, the gene, the kinship group, the extended group, or the species as a whole? For the mechanism of natural selection to work, we need to identify the individual as the unit of selection, not the extended group, because the mechanism depends on changing the frequency of a given gene within the population as a whole. Group selection is not a valid Darwinian mechanism of evolution. (This topic gained greater clarity through debates over altruism in animal behavior; G. C. Williams, Adaptation and Natural Selection.)

In general, I don't find that the analogy of natural selection has proven very useful as a basis for explaining social change. "Social evolution" appears to be a misnomer. In order for the analogy to work as a possible explanation of any kind of social change, we would need to be able to identify several specific things: the unit of selection; the features or traits that constitute the "phenotype" of the unit; the substrate in which the coding for traits exists (genotype); the mechanism of transmission by which "parent" transmits the trait to "offspring"; and the connection that is postulated between current traits and future reproductive success. We would also need a theory about the mechanism of mutation at the level of the coding of social traits, and -- if we are to stick with Darwinian evolutionary theory -- we would need to assure ourselves that acquired traits are not transmitted. Finally, the social situation would need to be one in which there are numerous independent "individual units" whose independent reproductive success over time leads to a change in the frequency of traits over time.

Partly the unsuitability of the analogy for explaining social change derives from the problem of the unit of selection: what are the units over which differential rates of survival are to be measured? The earliest social borrowers from Darwin chose to compare whole societies. The idea was that certain characteristics made one society more viable than another, and over time this advantage would lead to the dominance of the more fit society. But this isn't really a natural selection argument at all; there aren't enough societies, and the concepts of reproduction and fitness are not well defined.

A second sort of effort tried to draw a more exact analogy by singling out a kind of social organization which existed in multiple "phenotypes" in society. For example, evolutionary economics considers models in which the unit of selection is the business firm; the measure of reproductive success is profitability; and "reproduction" is simply survival from one period to the next. Putting the analogy simply: some firms have traits that make them more efficient and effective; these firms will be more profitable as a result; they will grow larger and stronger; and they will drive weaker competitors out of business. The market represents the selection mechanism. Over time, then, the superior business organization will become the standard -- until a next round of innovation occurs.

But this analogy isn't really a good one either, for a host of reasons. A firm is constituted by the ideas and behaviors of the individuals who make it up; there is no underlying genotype; participants actively redesign the traits of the organization (why else would there be consulting firms?); there is no real analogy to the transmission of traits through reproduction; and there would certainly be the possibility of transmission of acquired traits. So "evolution" towards more efficient or profitable forms of business organization seems to be simply a metaphor, not a theory of social change grounded in a mechanism of social reproduction and selection. If anything, the theory that seems to best describe the process identified here is "design, build, redesign" -- create a form of organization, observe its functioning, and modify the organization so as to achieve higher efficiency. In other words -- not natural selection but intelligent design.

A recent effort to use the theoretical machinery of natural selection as a scientific basis for social explanation is a paper by Paul Ehrlich, director of Stanford University's Center for Conservation Biology. Ehrlich uses available data about the timing and places of innovation in Polynesian canoe design to make an argument about cultural evolution. In an interview with Wired he puts his finding this way: "Features of culture that are tested against the environment will evolve at different rates from those not tested against the environment." Only the abstract is available online, so the full text isn't available; but it would appear that the argument goes something like this. The unit of selection is the local canoe-building tradition; the "genotype" is the hypothetical blueprint of the canoe this tradition builds; mutations are local innovations in design; and the winners are those canoe designs that are most seaworthy -- thus permitting their builders to populate more islands and build more canoes.

As a theory of technological change, I'm not convinced that the "selection" mechanism is doing much work here. Natural selection is a blind process; the finch doesn't notice that a longer beak would be a big advantage in digging out bugs from the bark. Rather, the "long beak" mutation occurs, and the long-beak finches out-reproduce the short-beak finches. In the canoe case, on the other hand, it is entirely credible that the skilled canoe builders are themselves observing and applying the test of nature; they are correcting the design so as to address the seaworthiness problems involved in the current iteration. So, as has turned out to be the case in so many other instances of social evolutionary thinking, the evolutionary metaphor doesn't seem to help much.

This isn't to say that it isn't possible to explain the diffusion of technical innovations over time and place as some kind of feedback process. It is certainly true that certain design traditions out-perform their rivals, and it is likely that these winners will eventually produce all the canoes within a certain domain (or steam engines, or silicon chips). Rather, the point is an explanatory one. We need to look for the concrete social mechanisms through which artifacts and traditions of skill change over time in response to the features of the environment and the society. And these mechanisms are almost certainly more intentional than the blind process of mutation and selection would suggest.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Technological inevitability?

Some historians imagine that new technologies force other kinds of social changes, or even that a given technology creates a more or less inevitable process of development in society. Marx is sometimes thought to offer such a theory: "the forces of production create changes in the relations of production." This view is referred to as technological determinism.

The logic underlying this interpretation of history goes something like this: a new technology creates a set of reasonably accessible new possibilities for achieving new forms of value: new products, more productive farming techniques, or new ways of satisfying common human needs. Once the technology exists, agents or organizations in society will recognize those new opportunities and will attempt to take advantage of them by investing in the technology and developing it more fully. Some of these attempts will fail, but others will succeed. So over time, the inherent potential of the technology will be realized; the technology will be fully exploited and utilized. And, often enough, the technology will both require and force a new set of social institutions to permit its full utilization; here again, agents will recognize opportunities for gain in the creation of social innovations, and will work towards implementing these social changes.

This view of history doesn't stand up to scrutiny, however. There are many examples of technologies that failed to come to full development (the water mill in the ancient world and the Betamax in the contemporary world). There is nothing inevitable about the way in which a technology will develop -- imposed, perhaps, by the underlying scientific realities of the technology; and there are numerous illustrations of a more complex back-and-forth between social conditions and the development of a technology. So technological determinism is not a credible historical theory.

For more credible interpretations of the relationships that exist between technology and historical change, we can consider the work of some very gifted historians.

An example of such a study of social-technological development is offered in William Cronon's fascinating history of Chicago, Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. Cronon tracks the effects that the extension of the rail network had on the city of Chicago and the region surrounding it into Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Michigan. Cheap, reliable rail transport between Chicago and New York created large markets for grain and beef. This gave incentives to farmers and traders to organize their activities in such a way as to take advantage of the profits newly available in these markets. But Cronon points out that transportation by railroad of large volumes of grain required a reorganization of the market institutions that were used: the establishment of grain elevators along the rail lines, the establishment of a gradiing system for qualities of grain being sold by farmers to elevator operators, and the establishment of a futures market for grain and beef. And he observes that entrepreneurs recognized the gains that could be achieved by developing these institutions and carried them forward. So the technology "needed" a reorganization of the market for grain; entrepreneurs recognized an opportunity for profits in achieving this reorganization; and the necessary social innovations occurred.

This makes the business and ecological transformation of Chicago's region sound inevitable, given the extension of the rail system into Chicago. However, contingency comes into this story from numerous angles. The build-out of the American rail network was itself a highly contingent matter; the major east-west lines could have been placed in numerous alternative routes, including a network that would have made St. Louis the major rail nexus in the center of the country. Second, the policy environment within which the American rail network developed represented another major form of contingency. As Frank Dobbin demonstrates, England, France, and the United States possessed very different "policy cultures", and these differences created substantial differences in the way in which the basic technology of the railroad was exploited in the three national settings (Forging Industrial Policy: The United States, Britain, and France in the Railway Age). And third, there are multiple social solutions that would work roughly as well as the institutions of the grain elevator and the futures market for solving the business challenges of mass transport and marketing of grain. The solutions that emerged in Chicago were therefore contingent as well.

Cronon and Dobbin illustrate several different aspects of technological causes and technological contingency in their accounts of the railroad. But for an author who takes the contingency of technology change even more seriously, see Thomas Hughes' history of electric power in Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930. Hughes demonstrates that the basic scientific discoveries associated with the technology of electric power had multiple possible realizations in machines and devices, and that the social constraints that existed in different national scientific-technical-political cultures led to substantial and fundamental differences in the development of the technology. The celebrated contest between alternating and direct current as the foundation of power transmission is one such example, but there are hundreds of other examples of choice that can be uncovered in the history of this fundamental modern technology. And, most pointedly, Hughes illustrates the way in which different municipal political requirements in England, France, and the United States led to substantially different implementations of the power stations and transmission networks in the three national contexts.

These examples illustrate several fundamental points about the role of technology in historical change. A new technology creates new opportunities for power, wealth, efficiency, or productivity; so a new technology can be a powerful force for social and economic change. Governments, farmers, entrepreneurs, and corporations have a complicated set of incentives that lead them to consider developing the new technology. So new technologies certainly function as effective historical causes. The development of a technology, however, introduces deeply significant elements of contingency. The term "path-dependency" is an accurate description of the process of the development of a major technology. Third, a technology is both influenced by social factors in the society in which it is developed, and also influences the future direction of social factors in the society. Thus technology is both cause and effect of social change. And, finally, it is evident that the study of the history of technology is inevitably a study of social processes and institutions as much as it is a study of machines and inventions. Technology is a social product, shaped by the needs and powers that exist in society as much as it is shaped by scientific imagination and discovery.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Chaos and coordination in social life

Much social behavior is chaotic, in that it simply emerges from the independent choices of numerous agents during a period of time. It is analogous to Brownian motion -- particles in a liquid moving in random motions as a result of innumerable bumps and pushes at the molecular level.

However, there are also many patterns that become visible in social behavior -- examples of what I would like to call "coordinated social action": stock market panic selling, holiday travel, rumors, style, riots, pickpockets in train stations. And we can identify many causes of coordination of individual behavior into larger patterns: commands, regulations, institutions, customs, conventions, collective plans, shared beliefs about social behavior, common sources of information, and common changes in the environment of choice, for example.

What I mean by "coordination" here is the opposite of chaos -- something analogous to the coherence of photons associated with the laser effect. In a laser a set of photons are stimulated to fire coherently with each other, resulting in a beam of light that possesses focus and parallel propagation that is different in kind from the scattered diffusion of photons from an incandescent bulb. "Coordinated" social action is a set of actions that possess synchronicity or regularity in their occurrence, resulting in an observable regularity of behavior over time and space. A crucial problem for social inquiry is to provide an explanation of the mechanisms that underlie the instances of coordinated social action that we can identify.

Examples of coordinated social action can easily be offered, and specific mechanisms can be identified that produce these forms of social coordination. An army moves in concert across a landscape (command). People drive on the right in North America (regulation). People send their children to school (institution). People greet each other with a polite "good morning" (custom). Villagers come together to fish as a group in the morning (convention). People discuss a spontaneous demonstration in front of the mayor's office on Wednesday, and many appear (collective plans). Drivers choose Route 3 rather than Route 1 because they expect a lot of traffic on Route 1 (shared beliefs). People buy a large number of batteries and chocolate, anticipating an approaching hurricane (common environmental change).

These are all mechanisms that create a degree of coordination or synchronization of behavior among independent agents. There seem to be several large categories of mechanisms here: hierarchical coordination (command, regulation); common response coordination (each individually responds to the same signal); communications and network coordination (individuals exchange messages to secure coordination); and strategic coordination (each intends to behave in a way that will be desirable given his/her expectation of actions by others). Might we try out the thought that all forms of regularities of social behavior derive from one or another of these forms of coordination? This thought is probably somewhat too strong a claim. For example, there are probably social regularities that derive from our biology and evolutionary histories -- limitations of memory, bonds of intra-group loyalty, kin altruism. But the impulse is a sound one: when we are able to observe patterns of social behavior, there must be a cause of those regularities that works its way through influence on the individual actors who constitute the domain of action. And there are only so many mechanisms that might serve.

These sorts of regularities and mechanisms constitute part of the regularity of social life, but perhaps only part. It may be that they don't capture other kinds of more "structural" regularities -- for example, "racial discrimination increases health disparities," "feudal political systems are slow to respond to external aggression", "capitalist market systems are more innovaative than planned economies". But there is an important aspect of social explanation that centers exactly on this question: what are the social mechanisms that bring a degree of coherence and coordination among the actions of a population of independent actors?

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Prejudice and social framing

People bring highly contingent assumptions, beliefs, and frames to their reading of their social worlds. These framing assumptions are presumably the effect of prior life experiences and learning -- this is what we can refer to as the social psychology of social perception.

(It is possible there is some degree of biology here as well; we can't exclude the possibility that there is a natural-selection basis to a neurophysiology of social perception, as argued by the sociobiologists. The case is not resolved at present. Are there any social impulses that are hard-wired through our evolutionary history?)

Another thing we know about social cognition is that human beings are great storytellers. We can take a small detail and weave it into an orderly narrative. And we are likely to tell stories that play out our expectations, fears, or hopes. We interpret the events and behavior around us in ways that go vastly beyond the slender facts that we observe.

(There is probably a developed area of research on this particular feature of social cognition, analogous to the study of reading or pattern recognition, though I am unaware of such research. But it would go something like this: assemble a set of video clips of people acting and interacting without much explicit context, and ask the subjects to briefly describe what is going on. Insert various social cues and see how that changes the stories subjects construct -- for example, change the actor's clothing or adornments slightly.)

Now let's see what the point is. I suggest that these features of human social cognition make prejudice and discriminiation a very common feature of social cognition. Take a small dimension of mistrust of strangers; add to this a slight propensity for being uncomfortable with difference; add the usual fact of the information sparsity available in most social interactions; and fold in the degree of fictionalizing and narrative construction that social cognition normally involves -- and what are you likely to get? It seems credible that the resulting stories will often enough represent the other in terms that support prejudice, discrimination and fear. And it seems credible that these internalized stories, and the actions and consequences they produce, will reinforce and proliferate the prejudicial stories and behaviors.

This suggests a basis for expecting mechanisms of social cognition that are xenophobic, racist, homophobic, and sexist. It is an unpleasant possibility.

It also suggests that when we advocate for a society based on assumptions of trust, equality, and mutual respect -- that we need to be considering as well how to create a learning environment that creates these cognitive habits. We shouldn't assume that trust and equality are "natural" states of mind, but rather a set of cognitive habits that need to be specifically cultivated.

If this has some credibility, it probably gives some indications of what a non-xenophobic pedagogy ought to look like. It ought to work to provide more background knowledge about human differences -- to fill in part of the data gap. It ought to work specifically to defuse the
origins of "stranger anxiety" -- to work against the background of fear that structures many human interactions. And it ought to affirmatively make the case for equality among persons -- to counteract a tendency for the group superiority stories to emerge.

In other words, a just and equalitarian society needs to be created. It isn't an accident.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

How does regional economic development work?

Countries, states, regions, and cities are interested in stimulating economic development in their jurisdictions. Various possible strategies are often mentioned:
  • encourage entrepreneurship
  • improve the talent base
  • enhance the attractiveness of the region to outsiders with creative talents
  • create a legal, fiscal, and regulatory environment that encourages new businesses
  • create larger pools of venture capital
  • attract out-of-region businesses through regional business-attraction centers
  • encourage research and development in local universities
  • facilitate the movement of inventions from the lab to the business plan

The primary question here is a causal one: what strategies actually work, and how would we use empirical research to evaluate alternative policy interventions by governmental and non-governmental organizations? How would we decide which policies to invest in?

In order to begin to answer this question, we need to get a little more specific about what we mean by "regional economic development." I'll just stipulate an answer to this:

Regional economic development entails the creation of new businesses and expansion of existing businesses, in a way that expands the total number of jobs and results in a rising average wage.

So regional economic development aims at creating more employment and a rising standard of living in the region, and it seeks to do this through causing expansion of profitable business activity in the region. And, in order to create higher-paid jobs, the businesses created or expanded need to be on the high-value-added end of the spectrum; this often means skill- or knowledge-intensive industries. New jobs in low-productivity manufacturing or service businesses will not increase the average wage.

(The last statement isn't necessarily true in a region with persistent unemployment. A new low-productivity factory with a low average wage will raise the average standard of living if it significantly reduces unemployment. However, it seems perverse to have the goal of stimulating the growth of low-productivity sectors and businesses rather than higher-wage opportunities.)

There are several ideas that arise from these simple statements and questions. One concerns the limits that exist on the ability of state or local governments to actually influence the rate of growth of business activity, jobs, and wages at all. It is an open question whether a state or region that has done an optimal job of aligning its policies and investments will actually have a higher probability of growth in these outcomes than one that has no strategies, bad strategies, or poorly aligned strategies. This is because the decisions made by investors and entrepreneurs are influenced by many other factors besides the policy tools available to the municipal or state governments. And the success or failure of business choices is determined by events outside the policy arena. The best way of capturing this thought is to recognize that the causal influence of good policies may still be small relative to other non-policy factors.

Second, though, we might have strong theoretical reasons for thinking that one policy choice is likely to have larger effects on the desired outcome than another. If we can demonstrate a theoretical basis in economics or organizational theory, for example, for concluding that factors X, Y, and Z are favorable for producing the outcomes we want, even if they are not decisive, then it is logical that we should try to identify the most influential of these factors; design a coherent package of policies that enhance these factors (i.e. avoid combinations that are self-defeating), and make the effort possible to implement this package of policies. That is, there may be a basis in social science theory for judging that policy X should have a positive effect on the probability of desired outcome Y. The reasoning may be economic (businesses will have an incentive to locate in regions where they can have a high confidence of recruiting a qualified workforce) or perhaps logistical (businesses will choose locations where transport is convenient) or fiscal (firms will take careful account of the total cost of doing business in Michigan versus California or North Carolina). But if we can demonstrate on theoretical grounds that X should positively influence Y, then we have reason to implement X even if we don’t have direct empirical evidence of X’s effectiveness.

This is the role of theory in justifying the choice of a policy package: a set of antecedent theoretical reasons for believing that this set of policies will work to increase the outcomes we are interested in achieving. There is another more empirical basis for assessing alternative policies, based on comparison of cases: look at a number of cases in which X is present or not present, and measure the status of Y. From a social science point of view, this inquiry is feasible but difficult. If we select six cities for comparison and find that the cities with a high percentage of college grads have high growth while those with low college grad percentages have low growth -- does that demonstrate that "talent causes economic growth"? Not exactly; the observed correlation could be spurious, accidental, collateral, or reversed. And likewise with the large-N version of the study. Suppose we find either that Y is positively correlated with X or that Y is not correlated with X, based on the values of X and Y over a large number of cases. Does the first finding demonstrate that “X causes Y”, and does the second case demonstrate that “X does not cause Y”? Neither conclusion is justified on the basis of just these facts. The non-correlation finding may be the result of a genuine causal influence masked by a number of disturbing influences; and the positive correlation may be the result of a common cause that is influencing both X and Y. So, as econometricians and epidemiologists know very well, the design of empirical studies that sort out the causal impact of various treatments is challenging.

In addition to these issues having to do with our ability to assess the causal weight of various policy treatments, we also have to consider the ratio of costs and benefits associated with various bundles of policies. Policy makers are forced to arrive at some estimate of the relative costs and benefits of the available policy options in order to make sensible choices among them. But here too there are the same problems of estimation: it is difficult to estimate either the probability of success of a given policy or the net value of the success of the policy.

The upshot of this short reflection, if there is one, is that it is very difficult to arrive at solid, precise, and rigorous estimates of either the economic impact of various policy choices or of their likelihood of success. And yet the policymaker does not have the luxury of indecision; economic development is a crucially important component of the wellbeing of a region's population. So it seems unavoidable that the best we can do is to assess policies on the basis of their likely contribution to economic growth, based on available economic and social theories, and be ready to finetune our choices as experience indicates.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Concepts and the world

What is the relation between concepts and the world? And how do we arrive at a conceptual scheme that provides a perspicuous way of representing reality?

This way of putting the question invokes one of the central polarities that has defined modern philosophy, including the traditions of Locke, Descartes, and Kant. It is the contrast of representation and reality; the polarity between the structures of mentation through which we conceptualize and represent the world, and the world itself, the given, the objective features of reality independent from our schemes of representation. Richard Rorty's title, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, expresses his skepticism about this polarity and about the conception of the relation between knower and the known that it corresponds to. But the intellectual conundrums these questions raise are unavoidable.

One of the views that we can take on the relation between mind and world is "realism": the idea that, for a given range of stuff, the stuff is independent from the ways in which we represent it. So we can be realist about fish or electrons, for example; and what this means is that we think there are real fish and electrons, and that their properties are objective and independent of the ways in which we conceive or represent them. But there is a huge problem with this view -- even as much as I want to defend a form of realism. It is the problem that "properties" are not objective features of the world, but are rather attributes singled out by concepts. And concepts are part of our mental schemes -- not inherent or objective features of the world that we are representing. So properties are not objective features of reality. "Facts" are similarly representation-dependent: we can't express a fact about the world except on the basis of a set of concepts. So we can't say that properties and facts are independent of the scheme of representation. And this seems to lead to the conclusion that naive realism is untenable.

The alternatives to realism include idealism and conceptualism -- the view that the properties of "stuff" are constituted by the mental schemes that we bring to the study of "stuff". But idealism is intellectually unpalatable, in its Berkeleian version anyway: in the idea that there is no objective, material world, but only a set of subjective mental representations conforming to an orderly succession in the mind. A particular version of conceptualism is the Whorf hypothesis, according to which different cultures inhabit different worlds because of the fundamental and incommensurable differences that exist between their conceptual schemes (Benjamin Whorf, Language, Thought, and Reality). And there is the Kantian version of these ideas -- the view that empirical reality cannot be recognized except through an organizing set of concepts or categories; so naive realism is ultimately incoherent. There is nothing we can say about a "noumenal" world -- a world as it really is beyond the categories of empirical experience.

So we might cautiously admit to the correctness of "conceptualism" -- that anything we say about the objective or real features of the world in inevitably couched within a set of concepts or categories, and there is no uniquely best set of concepts on the basis of which to analyze experience. This doesn't take us to idealism, however. It doesn't say that the world is subjective or constituted by consciousness; it doesn't say that the world lacks an independent status from the mind. What it says is that knowledge and representation of the world are inherently conceptual -- and this is an act of mentation rather than simply a reflection of the objective features of the world.

Within this conceptualism, we might say that the best we can do is to acknowledge that the world of stuff interacts with the knower; the knower brings a set of concepts to his/her interactions with stuff; and knowledge and the world are the joint product of this interaction. This view isn't necessarily idealist in the Berkeley sense -- according to which reality is simply an ensemble of mental representations. But it is non-objectivist when it comes to the facts about the world: the facts are dependent upon a scheme of concepts within the context of which we characterize states of affairs. And, at the same time, it permits us to assert that there are objective facts of the matter once we have settled on a conceptual scheme.

This set of issues has special relevance to the philosophy of social science; I'll have to return to the topic in another posting.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Koestler's twentieth century

Arthur Koestler is most celebrated for his historical novel about the Moscow show trials, Darkness at Noon. And the book is indeed a deeply revealing look at the heart of totalitarianism in the twentieth century -- the more so if you do a side-by-side reading of the trial of the fictional Rubashov and the transcripts of the trial of the historical Bukharin (Report of Court Proceedings in the Case of the Anti-Soviet Bloc of Rights and Trotskyites: Heard Before the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court). Koestler caught the psychology and history of the period exactly right -- and he did it more or less as a contemporary observer, not an archival historian with leisurely access to the archives after the fact.

But in some ways I find his autobiographical books even more gripping, and none more so than The invisible writing; An autobiography, published in 1954.

The Invisible Writing is an amazing window onto some of the most important events of the twentieth century: the rise of Hitler, the struggles between Communists and Nazis in the streets of Berlin, the gradual decapitation of all forces of the left in Germany in the 1930s, the great famine in the Ukraine, and the cruelty of the Spanish Civil War. Here is a telling description of a moment in time: "With the constant dismissals at Ullstein's [the publisher], and the shadow of Hitler lying across the country like a monster-shaped cloud, our motley little crowd of intellectuals was too scared to be capable of any clear thought. It was easy to win their sympathy for Russia, but almost impossible to make them take a determined stand for their own interests in Germany. The liberals in Germany -- and elsewhere -- have rarely understood that there are situations in which caution amounts to suicide."

Koestler was situated in such a way as to be a participant-eyewitness in these world-historical events. A few snapshots from this period -- street fighting in Berlin in 1932 between Communist workers and Nazi thugs; a train journey through the Ukraine during the worst of the deliberate war of famine that Stalin waged against the peasantry; Koestler's own denunciation of a loved one for a trivial suspicion; and a series of narrow escapes in fascist Spain (including a period of three months in a Franco prison under a sentence of death).

Koestler's political adulthood witnessed his own movement from Communist journalist and activist in Berlin in the 1930s to a committed anti-Communist in the 1950s. And his anti-Communism derived from his own honest willingness to confront the terrible truths of Stalinism -- Comintern's betrayal of the Spanish republicans, the Moscow show trials, the deliberate policy of famine as a tool of social war, and the repression and brutality of the Soviet state against its own citizens.

The book provides absorbing, valuable reading. And it offers deep lessons for us today -- about politics, about personal integrity, about the relationship between individuals and the state, and about the terrible power that ideology has wielded over humanity.

What Koestler learned from his part of the twentieth century, and was able to express so evocatively in his writings, was a series of brutal facts about power: the power of a fascist state to destroy all organizations that might challenge its grip on society, the power of propaganda to conceal and falsify evident social realities, and the power of ideology to blind intellectuals to the meaning of the events unfolding around them. Lies and coercion were the central realities of the state and the party -- both in Germany and in the Soviet Union.

Koestler describes the central paradox of the Moscow show trials in these terms:
To the western mind, unacquainted with the system and the rules, the confessions in the Trials appeared as one of the great enigmas of our time. Why had the Old Bolsheviks, heroes and leaders of the revolution, who had so often braved death that they called themselves 'dead men on furlough', confessed to these absurd and hair-raising lies? If one discounted those who were merely trying to save their necks, like Radek; and those who were mentally broken like Zinoviev; or trying to shield their families like Kameniev, who was said to be particularly devoted to his son--then there still remained a hard core of men like Bukharin, Piatakov, Mrachkovsky, Smirnov, and at least a score of other with a revolutionary past of thirty, forty years behind them, the veterans of Czarist prisons and Siberian exile, whose total and gleeful self-abasement remained inexplicable. It was this 'hard core' that Rubashov was meant to represent.

Here is a final, amazing twentieth century irony. The lead prosecutor in the Moscow show trials (1936-38) -- the person who established the jurisprudence of coercion, intimidation, and the crushing subordination of the individual to the overwhelming power of the state, was Andrei Vyshinsky. It was he who stage-managed the shameful miscarriage of justice that led to the executions of Zinoviev, Bukharin, Kamenev, and other leading Bolsheviks. And it was the very same Andrei Vyshinsky who was the Soviet Union's chief delegate in 1949 in the drafting of ... the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Here, surely, we find a person with a fine understanding of human rights.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Micro cultures?

Is there such a thing as a "micro"-culture -- a culture that is somewhat distinctive of a particular community in a specific time and place, and different from the culture of similar communities in other places?

The sorts of communities I'm thinking of might include sports teams, university faculties, union locals, church congregations, street gangs, or rural villages. Is it possible that Village X is a friendlier place than Village Y? Or that Local W is more militant than Local Z? Or that Gang S is less willing to use violence against younger brothers of rivals than Gang T is? And is it possible that these differences are real, persistent, and self-reinforcing through mechanisms that constitute a basis for dynamic cultural continuity?

Take the Boston Celtics. The players and coaches are all recruited in a national and international labor market; they generally are well acquainted with each other through their high-profile college basketball careers, camps, and leagues; and the NBA spends a lot of money in cultivating a national NBA culture rather than a micro-culture for particular teams. So you might imagine that every team would be simply a generic expression of national basketball culture. And yet it's possible that the Boston Celtics are a distinctive team, in terms of a number of characteristics. They might have more of a team ethic than, say, the Los Angeles Lakers; they might have some traditions that play out in practices and games; they might have a lore about the Celtics greats of the past -- Havliceck, Bird, Dennis Johnson, and they might conceivably have a style of play that persists through changes of coaches and players. So here the question is whether the national culture of NBA basketball is the key, or whether there are important differences in behavior, values, practices, and style that persist for specific teams over time. This speculation raises two sorts of questions: How would we attempt to determine whether there are such differences? And what sorts of social mechanisms would serve to preserve and reproduce such cultural specifics?

The basketball version of this story is pretty speculative on my part -- few of us have the close acquaintance with professional sports to have an opinion on the subject of local team cultures. But university faculties -- that's a different story. Here I feel more confident in asserting that there are indeed significant differences of culture across institutions, even institutions that are otherwise very similar. Among select liberal arts colleges, for example, there are wide variations on different campuses about the value of "university citizenship" (service on college committees, for example); the expectations and duties associated with teaching undergraduate students (high commitment versus low commitment to spending time with students; a felt obligation to provide meaningful commentary on student writing assignments); and probably differences around the standards of what is acceptable in gender relations (for example, the acceptability of romantic relationships between faculty and students or senior faculty and junior faculty). A little less tangibly -- it seems to me that there are visible differences on different college faculties concerning the depth and extent of social relationships among faculty members. Some faculties are tight-knit, with a lot of socializing independent from official functions; and others are more distant, with few serious friendships among faculty members. Some faculties give an impression of welcoming newcomers; others give a more standoffish or even unfriendly impression. (As a young faculty member on the job market years ago I was very aware of the reputations that different philosophy departments had for the way in which they conducted interviews with prospective assistant professors. One department was legendary for positioning the members of the search committee in a semi-circle surrounding the candidate, so that the candidate couldn't actually see everyone at once.)

One way of rephrasing the question here is this: is the climate and culture of a place (a university or a basketball team) just the net result of the personalities and idiosyncracies of the group of people who happen to have been recruited into the group; or does the culture of the group have a certain normative persistence, capable of transmission to new arrivals? The example of university faculties seems to support the second interpretation. And in fact it seems possible to identify some of the social mechanisms through which this transmission occurs: for example, imitation, coaching and mentoring, social discipline, and the transmission of narratives of "who we are at University X or College Y". The behaviors that are valorized through existing group members' practices and observations serve as a prescriptive model for the behaviors of more junior people. And of course, these processes of transmission are imperfect and malleable. The culture of a place changes over a period of several decades.

So I am tempted to think that small communities do in fact make their own cultures over an extended period of time, and that these cultures -- values, practices, modes of inter-personal interaction, experiences of commitment -- have some degree of durability. They do in fact succeed in changing the new recruits that come into the community, often enough to allow the mix of values and experiences that characterize the micro-culture to persist across multiple generations.